For the last month I’ve been working on both a prototype and updating my methods for making modular instruments, in an attempt to streamline the process.
When building a modular instrument, the production process should be such that every neck and body should fit each other – that way the customer can choose from any number of combinations (and I can keep a few different bodies and necks in stock). So for example, I could have a few bodies made of Alder, sealed and ready for painting, and a few neck blocks (necks part finished with a different fretboard materials, ready for hand shaping to taste). This way, the customer gets a shorter turnaround, but still gets a guitar built to the general design, but with a neck shaped to their own hand, with whatever frets they want, whatever fret markers they want, whatever colour they want. But I’m still slightly ahead of the game. I can even make special orders from exotic woods, but having accurate templating will still make the process quicker.
When you’re making guitars, or any other product, the price that you need to charge the customer relies on two things: Raw Materials costs, and productivity. In guitar making, I have absolutely no control over the cost of parts – there simply aren’t any deals to be had, the price is the price and I’m stuck with that. But what I can do is raise productivity, and therefore reduce prices to the customer. This is where I have to compete against those companies who can cut by machine. I still have to do all my cutting by hand, CNC is out of my reach, and just not my bag. By grouping actions of a similar nature, the fact that I don’t have a lot of workshop space can be made less of a disadvantage. Making bodies for a few days, then necks, then scratchplates.
That doesn’t mean that I want to stop making bespoke instruments, but that if I know I can diversify a little, I can invest more into the workshop – and hopefully reach the next necessary step – rebuilding the bloody thing to keep out the damp, cold and rodents!
The new model:
The aim was to create a new and unique shape, but one that would support a huge number of possible configurations for pickups, switching and hardware. Also, I set myself the task of making a guitar that would stand up against the amp without the risk of falling over – it had to have two points of contact with the ground.
The prototype had to be one that was a real utility instrument, so I went for a two humbucker guitar, with coil taps and a tremolo. Because I’m going to be playing it, the tremolo only goes one way, something achieved by cutting the neck pocket a few millimetres deeper than the design would normally require.
The basic design revolves around the 25 1/2″ scale length. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that because of the raised tension in this longer scale, the range of tones available is slightly wider. Listen to the neck pickup on a strat – it’s not the materials alone that allow that ‘chime’ and attack – the tension changes the way that the string reacts. Of course, top end can always be rolled away with the tone pot. Putting a single coil in a 24 3/4″ scale guitar rarely gives a similar effect in terms of tone, there is a noticeable lack of that spank and attack. In this case I originally started with a piece of Ebony for the neck, but it had a fault in it and I had to scrap it, hence the maple. However, the extra attack that seems to generate has made the guitar even more reactive, especially for the neck pickup.
The other thing that really changes massively in the tighter string is he reaction to both pinch and natural harmonics. For me, in the 25 1/5″ scale they are often more prominent and certainly pick harmonics seem easier to coax out of the guitar. Note that many of the late 80’s shredders used Strat length guitars. Lastly, the increased tension I think, aids tremolo stability – more string tension balanced by more spring tension. All together there is more force seating the block against the pins.
The wood used for this was leftovers. The piece of Tulip wood that was used for the body was brought in as a long plank, but the end was a bit green so I left it to one side – so that was cut and glued into a blank. The maple for the neck was a leftover that had warped slightly, so I had put it to one side earlier this year, but managed to plane it straight enough to use. The fretboard was was the last piece of a block I’d already made two necks from, both of which had subsequently warped and had to be binned, but for a fretboard was still fine.
I didn’t worry too much about the colour scheme, on the basis that I had a large piece of black scratchplate – so the body had to work with that. White seemed the obvious choice, so a spray can was purchased.
The neck shape is a little faster than I would normally design for myself, it’s a bit flatter too. When I first set it up and plugged it into an amp, I didn’t like the action because it was too low!
Lastly, the pickups. I’m a massive fan of the Bare Knuckles Pickups – my go to has always been the Mules. However, for prototyping they are a reassuringly expensive. So as an experiment I ordered a set of ‘Rolling Mill’ pickups from Iron Gear. Are they as good as the Mules? For me, no not really. But at three times the price are the Mules three times as good, absolutely not? The difference is subtle, partly in the smoothness of the bottom end of the pickup. But there’s no doubt that what Iron gear have done is create a pickup that at this price point I haven’t seen matched. They stand up against pretty much any of the non boutique brands that I’ve used here for replacement work, and destroy anything else I’ve heard that still resides in the budget market.
The prototype took about a month to make, from the templates to the finished guitar, which is pretty quick for me. I did a lot of re-tooling, especially in terms of the router and table. Whatever happens that will be of benefit later. In design terms, it’s certainly a departure from the more traditional shapes that I have tended towards, let me know what you think of it. I’m not sure whether it will prove popular, but it’s certainly growing on me!
PS: It doesn’t have a name yet. I think it’s going to need one.
PPS – As an alternative, I could also make a ‘custom’ model using exotic woods and load the guitar from the back, using the same basic shape and neck design – no plastic at all.